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DOWNEY - Those familiar with Lorine Parks' new book of poems, "Catalina Eddy," have commented on what a novel and entertaining idea she's come up with to make personalities of weather patterns, giving them names and character traits, some epic, some evoking noir melodramas. But "Catalina Eddy" is far more than an amusement. It's a rich, highly accomplished work that should establish Parks as an important voice in American poetry.
It's no secret that poetry, once ranked among the highest forms of human expression (think Homer and Shakespeare), has taken such a beating for such a long time that it's become an exceedingly minor art form in the popular mind, hovering somewhere near Medieval heraldry and songs of the didgeridoo. Blame industrialization, blame declining education, blame TV, the ubiquity of screens and the inexorable dumbing down of the consumer public. Blame the poets themselves.
"For most people who engage in it," a critic wrote in the 1990s, "the detailed praise of the simple is a posture of philosophical integrity; a secular creed, stripped of faith in any idea or ideal, they fall back on the mere facticity of the world, and try to make facts into a source of joy."
Meaning that, if you're especially skilled at describing what it's like to bite into a juicy peach, minor prestige publication and maybe a year-end award await you. As for explorations into outer realities that have inner resonances, leave that to the scientists and technocrats. Poetry in the American mind, as Saul Bellow observed in "Humboldt's Gift," "is a skirt thing. What's a poem compared to a rocketship?"
As it turns out, maybe more than we think. Those most preoccupied with the voyages to the center and outer edges of the universe, that is, the theoretical physicists, the people who bring us fractals, string theory, chaos theory, dark matter, black holes and sub-atomic recurrence, are suggesting that there may be no single center and therefore no sure circumference and that, in the end, poetry may wind up our most astute expression after all. Somehow, pit stop dialogues between astronauts and ground control engineers don't quite cut it.
Is it fair to drag Lorine Parks into this kind of conversation? Maybe, maybe not. The artist creates a work, the world makes of it what it will. But two things about "Catalina Eddy" merit serious consideration. One is her reconversion of natural phenomena into the vocabulary of human experience. The ancient Greeks had Aello, Helios, Neptune, Okeanus and Zephyr. Parks has, among others, Eddy ("a lovable but petty small-time con man"), June Gloom and Mae Gray ("deep marine layers of clouds"), Polar Flo, and Lull:
"....like a colt nuzzling for its mother Lull disappears into that vast warm current dissolving as easy and smooth
as a choice that's made
without knowing it matters."
In both worlds, ancient and Parks' modern, humanity and the natural elements are scarcely separated, if at all. Each expresses the other, which is why we can call someone mercurial, or volcanic, or saturnine, without realizing that these are not initial human properties. We name the universe so that it can turn around and express us. There is no such thing as alienation in the modern sense. The world has meaning and proximity, two key elements of spirituality (Parks e-mailed that her life on a Paiute reservation contributed to her pantheistic outlook).
The other distinctive element of "Catalina Eddy" is the sheer beauty of its language. "Catalina Eddy" isn't perfectly realized-a colt doesn't nuzzle for, either it nuzzles or it doesn't. But Parks is a born poet, with an acute sensitivity to the delicious stresses among vowels and consonants amid rhythmic flow. She understands tone. She ranges from the evocative (note the following spacing that denotes gaps in perception, particularly between "sun" and "gone"),
"twilight fog unrolls like an indigo ribbon
a veil of moisture blown in over the dunes
the diluted red glow of a sun gone down"
to the powerfully dramatic. Of the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the most devastating in American history, she writes,
"unsuspected I come
through the strait between Yucatan and the Florida Keys and through their open arms into the Gulf I enter in majesty like the Pope in white satin when the bronze doors open and il Papa comes out
and one hundred thousand pilgrims surge like foam in St. Peter's Square...
Galveston is a long skinny sandbar of an island And before I came it was the biggest port in Texas I make landfall there at five in the evening hitting its puny sea wall with an oratorio of Aeolian shrieks and the organ moan of humanity forsook my cross-current waves surge fifteen feet over the city I leave a few pretty mansions to remember me by
but at dawn Galveston is gone"
This is great stuff, best read out loud. A fine poet like Parks reminds us of how language at its best becomes a sixth sense, a palpable culmination of the other five. "Catalina Eddy" - even the title has pizzazz - is a fresh, rewarding experience.
Published: June 21, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 10